Concerning How Mr. Brain Swaddles His Brain


January 25, 1992|By JOHN BRAIN

After walking the streets of my home town, London, for five or six hours during my last visit, I became aware that I was the only male in that teeming city wearing a hat. A town made famous by its toppers, bowlers, trilbys, boaters and deerstalkers was utterly hatless. That day I saw but one other hat, outside the National Gallery, worn by a man, like myself, of dubious nationality.

It was an exceptional English summer day of savage heat, with the sun beating relentlessly down, and the temperature soaring into the 70s. Since my departure in 1958, Britain had apparently alienated itself from the world of hats. So why should I worry? Let them stew under the burning sun or cringe under the pelting rain. I would wear my sensible summer hat, or my rain hat, and be comfortable.

For the first 50 years of my life I despised hats. Apart from my mandatory school cap -- a ridiculous peaked pimple -- and a shapeless headbag required by Her Majesty's Royal Air Force, I eschewed all caps and hats as constrictive of my free spirit and let my locks flow free.

I paid no heed to the hatters of England, who in the '50s ran a massive advertising campaign using the slogan ''If you want to get ahead, get a hat.'' I cared little then for getting ahead, and less still for hats. Many young men must have thought as I did, for the great days of English hatting were already past, and it would not be long before the mop-headed Beatles. But the locks of a 50-year-old are not as free-flowing as they once were. In winter, a growing bald spot becomes a cold spot; in summer, a hot spot, exposing the brain to extremes of temperature from which it may never recover. In middle age I began to re-evaluate the hat.

Hats, like other clothes, are not worn primarily to keep out the cold. They are expressions of status and dignity, symbols of commitment and belonging. As Shakespeare said, a man in his life wears many hats. They embody the multiplicity of the personality.

But my interest in hats was pragmatic, inspired by the philosophy of William James and John Dewey. I needed to cover a bald patch. A functional headcover. A head is a machine for thinking, and a hat is a kind of egg-cosy for eggheads. It coddles the brain and improves cogitation. All bona fide philosophers wear thinking caps, as much a badge of office as a practical necessity.

So with the passage of time and growing wisdom -- not to mention a rapidly receding hairline -- I became persuaded of the essential rightness of hats. My first hat was a thinking cap -- modest, inconspicuous, a studious and creative hat, not a hat for all seasons, but a hat for the home, a homely hat. My second and third hats were equally practical: flying hats, cotton in summer, woolen in winter, hats to be worn under the goldfish-bowl canopy of a sailplane, while sporting among the clouds.

My fourth hat was a helmet, no less; a hard hat to protect the head from objects with which it might collide after parting company with a motorcycle. As of old, a helmet is an effective disguise, and with visor down and face swathed against the elements, my helmet was a mask of inscrutability.

But these practical hats required no special courage to wear. They did not make a statement. Then, in 1972, after a bout with pneumonia, my wife knitted me an anti-pneumonia hat that changed all that.

This Great Hat -- for she had knitted it with needles too big and wool too bulky -- was a monstrous thing, a monumental hat fit for a Gog or a Magog, a giant of a hat. Needless to say, it slipped down my pygmy brow and obscured vision, so it was edged with elastic and made to fit after a fashion.

This was truly a hat to stand tall in, a woolen busby, a beehive of a hat. Like the pope's three-tiered crown, it looms above the head and can be worn only with circumspection and firm control of the neck muscles. Wearing such a hat in public is to make a statement, as if to say, ''See, the Hat.'' It is not worn often; that it is worn at all is a testament to marital fidelity.

This hat opened the floodgates. And as the hair receded, the hats advanced.

Even less worn is now the Colorado Hat, purchased in the lee of the Rockies and intended to shade a cowboy's brow from the big sky. Its brim curls up in a graceful arc; its crown is deeply indented. It is a hat that can only be worn in character, as a gesture of solidarity with the American West, a reminder of spurs and chaps, perhaps.

I now have a growing closet of going on 30 hats, each with its own charisma and virtu. An orange flannel hat left behind by my daughter, a flame of a hat visible for many miles, good for head-spotting in a crowd, mostly because others edge away from the wearer. A whole array of winter woolen hats, from the simple bobble hats of late fall to the double-knits and facemasks of midwinter.

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